Jamaica. The land of azure blue seas and exotic beaches. Sunsets and cocktails await you in the friendly, relaxed atmosphere of the ‘Island of Alright‘ The island where dreams come true.
Last year I took the journey down to Jamaica. I had to take connecting flights (nightmare for a slightly [read: VERY] nervous flyer) to finally touch down in Kingston.
We had flown around two incredibly beautiful storm systems while navigating the Caribbean Sea. The Lightning created pockets of light inside the vast clouds. As we deplaned the air was thick and waiting for the storm to roll in.
Sometimes we have opportunities in life to walk in the realms of heaven – where things are just as they should be.
This, for me, was one of those opportunities. One of those moments.
A few months previously I had met a wonderful man named Father Zachary. He is a Catholic Priest. I don’t have many Priest friends. In fact he was probably my first. I think I also had a lot of preconceived ideas about Priests. He fits none of them.
He invited me to join him and a few others to visit and serve the Missionaries of the Poor in Kingston.
When we arrived, tired, apprehensive and expectant, we waited for quite a time for a rickety people carrier to show up to bring us to the home where we would be staying. The Brothers, dressed in white robes and a blue sash, ushered us into welcome (but not very effective) air conditioning.
We sat making our way through the quiet streets towards Kingston Harbor – a sprawling area of lights and smoke.
As we drew closer to our home the streets began to look more like a war zone than a ‘destination’. The buildings were crumbling and the streets had not been cared for.
There was an eerie quietness about the place. The type of quiet that suggest a danger that everyone knows about, yet no one can see until it’s too late.
We pulled up to the gate. The 15ft walls had barbed wire, sticking out of the concrete at the top and the gate was solid iron, a beautiful blue, with a small human sized door at the bottom. It reminded me of something from the medieval times, a gate into a castle, protected by a lone guard and thick walls.
There are bullet holes in the wall. Scars of conflicts and, sometimes, fatal blows.
The doors opened for our van.
The other side of those walls held a beautiful garden and courtyard leading up to a house, sprawling and discombobulated, but full of purpose and a simple sort of comfort. It was such a place of rest and balance. The walls of the home breathed out this wholesome spirit, despite the outer walls acting as a solid, protective layer. They gave up nothing of the beauty inside.
It occurred to me that this can be how we are in our lives, with ourselves.
The outside of us can look just like others in our surroundings, all of the walls in the neighborhood were nearly identical to the others.
We can look like nothing particularly extraordinary. Surrounded by poverty or conflict in the world.
Maybe we even have a few thick walls topped with barbed wire and all the protection we can muster around us.
Looking from the outside it may be hard to see the careful tending of the inner garden, or the utility of a kitchen well used. The joy of flowers springing up under blooming palm trees and the welcome rest of a single bunk bed, covered gently with mosquito nets. Similarly from the outside it can be hard to see the work being done inside of us. I found this profound.
The Brothers and Sisters, men and women who had devoted their lives to serving the poor and serving God, all looked similar to me at the beginning.
They all had the same clothes for a start. The same routines. Even, seemingly, identical prayers.
But there was something else about them. A oneness of spirit. A oneness of purpose. A stepping into their space and owning it.
They weren’t homogeneous nor were they perfect human beings.
As I got to know each of them better I could see the individual colors that they were bringing into the community.
Brother Robert is quick tempered and jolly all at the same time. He takes up a lot of any room he is in. He is in charge of the musical efforts of the Brothers and one night treated us to a rendition of ‘Let it Be’ by the Beatles. He shouts at volunteers when they don’t do their fair share, but also quietly comes alongside each one to encourage them in their gifting. To me his color would be a vibrant red.
Brother Daniel also made a lasting impression on me. As we worked to clean and tend to some pretty awful bed sores for Stephen, a guest at the Faith Center, Brother Daniel joyfully made everything seem light and easy. He gave Stephen back so much dignity while physically helping him to heal. He managed everything without being trite or reducing the gravity of the experience that Stephen was having. If I had to pick a color for Brother Daniel it would be a light gold.
As different as red and gold are, both Brothers were settled confidently into the hue that they offered the world. They were of one purpose and one mission, but so different in the ways they approached and contributed to their assignment.
As I observed and listened throughout my time in Kingston I began to become hungry for the settled confidence they each had. For the joy and the ease of service. For the purpose and the production.
I wanted to begin to move past those walls, into the inner courtyard, garden and home of my spirit and tend to the beauty of that rather than preserving or fortifying my protection system.
Our outer walls take a beating. There is darkness and attack that we all have to constantly be aware of. I believe that these things shouldn’t touch the inner workings of our own expression of the color that we are forming. I believe they shouldn’t get in the way of letting in what is true and holy and good.
The little human sized door in the gate was there for a reason. It offered easier access than opening up the whole gate at once. We each have these little access gates into our inner workings. A point of vulnerability.
The Brothers told us about 2 martyrs who were shot inside the compound where their home sits. Both had been tending to the vegetable patch and a drug lord scaled the wall and shot them in retribution for disrespecting his authority in the neighborhood.
Sometimes it’s true that we aren’t safe, even in our inner most parts. Sometimes things, people and situations scale our carefully built defenses and destroy something that can’t be replaced.
Even these dark tragedies haven’t dissuaded the good works of the Brothers who are left. Neither should they dissuade us from cultivating our own inner spaces and sometimes allowing a small door to open to those who can offer us help and support.
The little door in the gate at the monastery was open for trusted people to freely move in and out. I think we can learn something from this too. Even if we have needed to build up the thick walls we can still open ourselves up for those who help us towards the true and holy and good.
It reminded me to always keep a door open.
Jamaica was certainly the island where dreams came true for me. I wouldn’t say in anyway that it is the island of ‘alright’. It’s the island of the extraordinary. It started me on a journey of tending to and opening up my garden and inner home – aiming for that comfortable simplicity.
I hope you know and find your space for that too. A place or moment where you can walk in the realms of heaven, where everything is just as it should be.
[PS I know I’ll have so much more to say about my favorite Caribbean island in time to come. I plan to return this year and visit the friends I made before. If you would like to give to the work of the missionary of the poor you can do so here]
These last few weeks have been something else.
The tirade of revelation after revelation of the reality of the world we now live in feels like an assault to me. We barely catch our breath from one announcement to another. Constantly fighting to figure out what is fact, what is truth, which are ‘alternative facts’, what is rhetoric.
It would be easy to feel like we were going to be in this Twilight Zone forever. Like there is no end to the bizarre twists and turns of the actual reality TV that is playing out before us.
In an attempt to lift myself out of the mire of the news cycle and perpetual feeling of hopelessness my mum and I went to see the film ‘Lion‘.
It. Wrecked. Me.
I moved through the entire spectrum of emotion while watching the true story of a child who grew into a man, trying desperately to find his identity while trying to balance his relationships and find his truth.
It managed to pull me out of the microcosm of DC life and back into a wider and deeper perspective.
It reignited a fire in me that reminded me that this is the basic story of each human. Our basic struggle. Except there isn’t anything basic about it.
It’s messy and complicated and it hurts and it makes us laugh and it makes us sob until there’s nothing left in us.
The pursuit of the truth of who we really are when we are pulled in so many different directions. The truth of where we belong, of where home is and what home means.
I wont ruin ‘Lion’ for you. Go see it, it’s incredible and beautifully shot. Today 86% of rotten tomatoes agrees.
As I left I began thinking about all the things I identify with, or identify as. I am British, and American and Christian and left-wing and artistic and emotional and, and, and…
I began thinking about those things or people that I let speak into my life, that define who I am and how I respond to things.
I believe that each human has the imprint of the divine upon them.
In ‘The Weight of Glory’ CS Lewis said:
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
To his point as we go about our every day lives we may not have the lense to see the truth of the who we all really could be.
That we may end up in the heavenly realms looking across at our neighbor that we didn’t take very much interest in and suddenly see them in the fullness that they were always intended to be.
Or maybe we’ll see ourselves in the heavenly realms in the fullness of who we were always supposed to be – finally fully free to be how we were intended.
This, for me, is a hard thing to contemplate. To think that I may have been created and loved and imagined and formed, to be someone so much more than I would dream of becoming.
CS Lewis says that we could be ‘Everlasting splendors’
My hope and prayer would be that not only one day I will become one of those ‘everlasting splendors’ but that I would also always facilitate that for others too.
That I would see in them that divine imprint that sets us apart. That I would never cause someone to slip away into the realms of ‘immortal horrors’.
The likes of which we see evidence of everywhere.
Just yesterday London was rocked by the actions of one man. In a few short minutes lives upon lives were changed and altered in a horrific way. I wonder what may have happened if someone had helped him turn away from the darkness that he so obviously was consumed by. The responsibility lies with the individual, however it can be our joy to help someone see there is another way.
How are we doing on helping each other to the right destination? How are we doing in calling out the truest and best self of those we come in contact with? What an exciting, thrilling and weighty calling we have.
For today I am deciding that instead of focusing in on those horrors that are so real to each of us, in our own ways, I will focus on the paths away from them and how best I can help clear the way.
Here are a couple of examples I saw this week to help us remember there is so much light:
I am profoundly aware that as a human being I walk in shades of dark and light and that I will never be fully right about all my opinions and feelings. That I will make selfish decisions. Decisions that I think are for the good of others when they are actually self-serving. I get ‘facts’ wrong too. I mishear, misinterpret, become unreasonable and am not a good ambassador for the things that I hold close to my heart and deeply desire to show other people.
“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ” – Mahatma Ghandi
Throughout my life I have spent an unusual amount of time in Holocaust memorial museums.
In 2007, a decade ago now, I stood in the DC Holocaust museum when I was visiting the States for a few months. My eyes caught a label that read ‘Hannah’ in Hebrew on one of the suitcases.
My name is Hannah. I felt my heart break and my eyes fill.
I knew then that it could have been me, or a person I loved. Then, even worse, I realized that for someone, somewhere, this kind of abomination was their reality now, today.
That someone somewhere was running from a threat so great that they may not make it. That surviving was all they could do and even that is unlikely.
As I left the museum, I said a prayer and bought a pin that read ‘Never Again’. I made a private promise to myself and to God that I would do everything I could to make that come true.
With this in mind, I can now feel the conviction of this promise tugging through my being.
As a child I was moved by ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit‘ written by Judith Kerr. Kerr takes us through her memories as a young child when her family was forced to flee, then through developing Nazi Germany. She narrates with a humor and grace that allows a small child to read without abject horror and allows an adult to be unable to deny that same horror.
I myself had a ‘lambie’, not a pink rabbit. I none-the-less understood the concept of someone stripping you of all that you love and hold dear and the pain that causes. I personally sobbed through much of the book.
It’s with a heavy heart that I begin to see a similar trend as the pre-WWII years take place on the world stage in front of us. The political elite have dutifully, and often selfishly, gone about the business of politics while the people they serve become disengaged, disenfranchised and afraid.
The game for power, while won by individuals and in many cases individuals who are good people, was being played far away from the truths of people’s lives. Out of touch and out of care.
The election of Donald Trump as US President, Brexit, the non-election of Theresa May as Prime Minister in the UK, a movement towards the right for Marine Le Pen in France and the disturbing, alleged interference of Russia in elections throughout the world are just a few indications that a shift is taking place.
A shift that should grab our attention and our prayers.
A shift that should be ominous.